“Life’s just a cocktail party on the street”
I’ve never read any Lawrence Block novels, but that’s okay, because I’ve read a lot of other books! However, I bought Eight Million Ways to Die, the adaptation of his 1982 novel (which is published by IDW and costs $24.99) for one reason: it’s adapted and drawn by John K. Snyder III. Snyder is a singular artist with a wonderfully unique style, and he’s been absent from comics for far too long after having a decent career in the 1980s/early 1990s, working on such titles as Fashion in Action (his first work, which was published as a back-up in Scout and was recently restored and published in its entirety), Grendel (truly amazing work), Suicide Squad, Doctor Mid-Nite (more amazing work), and Mister E. After Doctor Mid-Nite in the late 1990s, he did comics here and there, but worked in other fields, so the fact that he decided to do a nice big graphic novel to show off his work is terrific. Luckily, he chose a good story and did a wonderful job with it.
Block writes the foreword, in which he points out that this is the fifth book to star Matthew Scudder, his not-quite-private investigator (he doesn’t have a license, in other words). This might seem to be a fairly big obstacle, but Snyder does a nice job giving us a quick recap of Scudder’s life until then – he was a cop who accidentally killed a kid, which led to him quitting the force (even though he wasn’t charged with anything because it was, after all, an accident) and drinking even more, until in this book he wrestles with quitting and what being an alcoholic means. It’s actually not a bad place to start, because we’ve all seen hard-drinking cops/private investigators before, but what happens when they’re trying to quit is far more interesting, and that’s what we get in this comic. The mystery is pretty well done, too – Scudder gets a new client, a prostitute named Kim, who asks him to help her get out of the business by smoothing it over with her pimp, of whom she’s frightened. Already, we think we know where this is going, but it’s not – the pimp says fine, no hard feelings, and all is well. But then Kim gets killed, and now we really think we know where this is going – the pimp really wasn’t fine with it, so he killed her. But that’s not it, either – the pimp (a dude named Chance) actually hires Scudder to find out who killed her, and over the course of the book, he and Scudder don’t quite become friends, but Scudder learns enough about him to know he didn’t do it and that Chance is much deeper than we might think. The mystery is the smallest bit convoluted, but it’s not too bad, and at least it’s something different than just a crime of passion, as these things usually are. Block and Snyder are very good at showing the seedy underworld of New York in 1982, as Scudder interviews several hookers who might have known something about Kim. The book becomes very humanistic – the hookers are a diverse bunch, and none of them can be pigeonholed as to why they’re prostitutes or what they expect to get out of it. They reveal the many layers of society and how women were (and in many ways still are) viewed in a sex-obsessed but repressive society. Chance, too, is fascinating – at one point he explains to Scudder how he got into pimping, and while it’s fairly personal to him, it implies that racism had something to do with it, as a black man coming of age in the 1970s might not have too much open to him. Chance is an art collector, picking up African sculptures and masks, and he’s become quite the connoisseur, even as he has to put up a front to live where he does, because his white neighbors wouldn’t appreciate a black man living in their building, even if he has money. It’s an interesting character arc for someone who appears to be, at the beginning of the book, a minor player or simply a murder suspect.
As I noted, Scudder’s alcoholism also forms a big part of the book, and Block and Snyder do a nice job showing how difficult it is to stop drinking. It’s on Scudder’s mind all the time, and he doesn’t make it through the book without falling off the wagon, but it’s what he does going forward that matters. Drugs are prevalent in the book, forming a decent part of the plot, but the problems of harder drugs are never dwelled on, as Scudder’s issues become universal for what everyone else is going through. There are a few scenes in which he gets a drink and just stares at it, trying to decide what he’s going to do, and those small moments hit hard, because they’re something everyone can relate to, as everyone has addictions, some of which are much more dangerous than others, but which get hooks into us nevertheless. Scudder’s plight is mirrored in the other characters, but what makes this part of the book good is that it’s not emphasized, just there for us to find. Kim, Chance, and the other hookers are engaged in a dangerous lifestyle, and they’re all addicted to it in various ways and they’re all looking to break the addiction in various ways. It’s not necessarily a more complex detective story than you might expect, because writers have been making their detectives complex for decades, but it is more thoughtful than most, as Scudder actually works through what he’s going through rather than simply breaking down or overpowering it, which are the two standard options.
It’s not surprising that the book looks great, because Snyder is a terrific artist. He’s always had an angular style, which adds a crispness and a hard edge to his work, and for a seedy noir story, that’s not a bad thing. We don’t get too many wide street scenes, but Snyder is excellent at those, creating an early Eighties New York that could easily be from a movie made at the time given the verisimilitude of the surroundings. Scudder and the others in the book inhabit sad places, and Snyder does a nice job showing the faux opulence of the world of the pimps and hookers – even Chance’s place, which is actually nice, exudes a coldness that shows his isolation and loneliness. Snyder draws the women beautifully, too – each one is unique, and each exhibits difference desirable traits for men who visit prostitutes, and Snyder shows through the way they “move” how each one is different when they’re not on the job and how they protect themselves in the scary world. It’s remarkable because it’s not too obvious, but the way Snyder draws them reacting to Scudder’s questions lets you know what you need to about how they deal with potentially deadly interactions. The way Scudder and Chance interact is well done, too, as neither man really trusts the other, but in Scudder, Chance finds someone who might understand the frustration he feels in not being able to live his life how he wants to. Yes, he’s a man with a great deal of power over the lives of others, but he’s dissatisfied and yearns for something else (which is evident in how easily he agrees to let his prostitutes leave the life), and while the hookers that Scudder interviews can’t show that too much to a stranger, Chance has no such qualms. Snyder does this all through the artwork, which is impressive. He does nice work with the coloring, too – obviously, he uses a lot of dark blues and dark grays because of the morally dark world in which Scudder lives, but he also shows unexpected moments of beauty colored in more fiery and brighter colors, and he colors the women as realistically as possible, grounding them as real women and not sexual fantasies. Again, it’s fairly subtle, but nicely done.
It would be nice if Snyder did more comics work going forward, and it would be nice if he was able to do work that was this interesting and thought-provoking. This also makes me interested in Block’s novels, which isn’t a bad thing, I suppose. Eight Million Ways to Die is a very good noir detective story, and it’s definitely worth your time. Check it out at the link below, or just use that link for anything else you want. That’s how we roll here!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆